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    Charities see rising needs as gifts fall

    With donors diverting much of their attention to the Sept. 11 effort, local groups try to refocus on the plight of the area's needy.

    By KATHRYN WEXLER

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published November 1, 2001


    TAMPA -- In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, local organizations that serve the poor are seeing a surge in pleas for help and a drop in donations.

    Increasing layoffs in a souring economy have forced the newly unemployed into bread lines and left them in need of vouchers for utility and rent payments, said representatives from several dozen charities who convened Wednesday at the United Way's Tampa office.

    "People are calling (for help), saying, "I'm embarrassed, I've never done this before, but I'm desperate,' " said Ronda Russick, executive director of Society of St. Vincent de Paul in south Pinellas County.

    Meanwhile, donations normally earmarked for the poor went to victims of the terrorist attacks, said Diana Baker, interim president of the United Way of Hillsborough County.

    "Our object now is to really turn the focus back to the local community and local needs and work just as hard at home as on the national level in the last few weeks," Baker said.

    The meeting, attended by about 70 people, was intended to bring together organizations from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties to compare their predicaments and brainstorm about remedies.

    The Salvation Army in Tampa, for example, reported that requests for vouchers to pay for utilities soared 200 percent in September and part of October compared with the same period last year.

    At the Department of Children and Families in Hillsborough County, Medicaid applications are up 20 percent this October compared with last.

    In St. Petersburg, the wait to get an expedited appointment with the Department of Children and Families is now 10 days, said Jane Walker of Daystar Life Center, a St. Petersburg charity.

    And yet, even while charities on the front lines are sounding alarms, donations to the United Way are not far off target. The United Way is the nation's main umbrella fundraising organization and gets most funding from corporate employees.

    "We're cautiously optimistic this is still going to be a good campaign," said Linda Simmons, board chairwoman-elect of the United Way of Hillsborough County. The organization is aiming to collect nearly $18-million before Nov. 19.

    But relief providers with much smaller budgets said they are feeling the pinch. From small organizations that give groceries to a few dozen families to bigger providers that serve hot meals daily to hundreds, donations have fallen to the point where some charities now run out of food weekly. Others are running dangerously low.

    "This really makes us a little desperate," said Pastor Helion Cruz of Good Samaritan Mission, which serves migrant workers in east Hillsborough County. He cited a 30 percent drop in cash donations. Religious Community Services in Clearwater, meanwhile, reported that its donations fell by a 60 percent in October, compared with last year.

    Local unemployment claims picked up at the end of September, according to figures released by the Agency for Workforce Innovation.

    In Hillsborough County, the number applying for benefits swelled to nearly 20,000 people, 5,000 more than in September 2000. In Pinellas County, the increase was about the same, bringing the total to 17,000 unemployed. But the unemployment rates in both counties remained below the statewide average of 4.5 percent.

    Some of the ideas providers came up with Wednesday included approaching supermarket chains that aren't pitching in with much food, consolidating information about food providers and better publicizing the growing need.

    At the Divine Providence Food Bank, the largest food provider in Hillsborough, requests by small relief organizations have increased by up to 20 percent in the weeks after the attacks, said Betty Kolby, associate director. But the usual rise in donations during the fall months has yet to materialize, she said.

    "We moved 5-million pounds of food through our food bank last year," Kolby said. "It won't be anything near that this year."

    - Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3383.

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